In defense of Corrine Brown
Goodbye to my favorite congresswoman
The number of living elected officials whom I do not despise shrunk by one when Rep. Corrine Brown, who lost the Democratic primary in Florida's fifth congressional district in August 2016, left Congress in January of this year.
Brown will almost certainly never hold public office again. She was sentenced by a judge in her home state of Florida to five years in prison on Monday, on charges of using a phony charity to squeeze money from donors and into her own pockets. Of course, she could win the appeal she has vowed to pursue, and I for one am praying for her victory. But in all likelihood, Corrine Brown is done.
Brown is one of our most remarkable politicians not only because of the genuinely good work she did for her constituents, but because she is an extraordinary human character. Not since the death of Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) has there been a more amusing figure in Congress. Brown is a larger-than-life stateswoman, a free spirit, a tongue-lasher, a brawler, a pro-earmarks street fighter, a welfare pugilist, motivated not by ideology or party loyalty but by practical concern for the well-being of men and women in her largely black district, a long flood-ridden plain extending from Jacksonville to Orlando along the St. Johns River that was largely uninhabited until it became a haven for freedman in the immediate postbellum era for whom she secured hundreds of millions in federal dollars.
Brown's putdowns, invariably delivered from her favorite tables at the barbecue joints of Jacksonville and Tallahassee and full of casual obscenities ("My congressional office is for congressional matters. You need to know it's not for the bullshit."), are the stuff of legend. Her opponent in the 1992 Democratic primary, a white liberal talk-show host, was a "bubba," she said, who "couldn't win at the ballot box, so he took it to court." Gov. Charlie Christ, he of ever-shifting party affiliation, was a ludicrous figure who was "good at taking pictures." She dismissed George W. Bush's administration as "a bunch of white men" and was rebuked by that beacon of virtue Dennis Hastert for referring to the 2004 presidential election as a "coup d'état." The charges against her in 2016 were "some bullshit… a Peyton Place witch hunt." She is known to sign her letters "Your sister in the struggle, Corrine Brown."
It is impossible to imagine many of the numberless and indistinguishably venal creatures who represent us in our federal legislature caring at all about something as simple and life-enhancing as college football. When Brown appeared on the floor of the House in January 2009 wearing a tangerine Florida Gators dressing gown — with a tasteful black pantsuit underneath, of course — and gave a speech congratulating Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer, she secured my affection forever. In her wide-ranging remarks, she also heaped scorn on the then-embryonic notion of a college football playoff system. "One, two, three, four, five / Then the Gators don't take no jive," she said before yielding back the balance of her time.
The charges that eventually sealed Brown's fate are not the first time she has been accused of wrongdoing in her long political career. What is remarkable is how thin the record now looks. In 1998 she accepted a $10,000 check from a Baptist minister that may or may not have been used to bus supporters to a rally. Two years later she helped secure the release of Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko, a somewhat eccentric West African millionaire once alleged to have used black magic to obtain a $240 million deposit into his account at a Dubai bank, from prison. Sissoko, a gregarious man by all accounts, thanked Brown by buying her daughter a Lexus. "And," the Washington Examiner adds breathlessly at the end of its rap sheet, "in 2008, Brown took heat from the mayor of Jacksonville after she had sandbags delivered by the city to protect her home from Tropical Storm Fay. The congresswoman eventually pledged to pay the city $886."
The sanctimonious remarks of the law enforcement officials who successfully prosecuted Brown are a window into the world of liberal elites for whom the empty formalism of process and clichés about governance matter more than right and wrong. "Former Congresswoman Brown chose greed and personal gain over the sacred trust given to her by the community that she served for many years," said U.S. Attorney Stephen Muldrow. "Former Congresswoman Corrine Brown violated the public trust, the honor of her position, and the integrity of the American system of government when she abused one of the most powerful positions in the nation for her own personal gain," added Kenneth Blanco of the Justice Department.
What integrity and whose sacred trust? Brown's crimes pale in comparison with what many white congressmen in wealthier districts probably get away with every day. The law says that bringing home the bacon for one's poor constituents while quietly scheming with one's staff to put away a slice of it — well shy of a million dollars, to be split three ways — is a crime and that accepting 10 or 50 or 200 times that amount from Wall Street and Silicon Valley and pharmaceutical companies in order to implement their agenda is politics.
"If the law supposes that," said that distinguished legal scholar Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist, "the law is a ass — a idiot."
Editor's note: This article originally misstated James Traficant's party affiliation. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.